Kendra Kitchel was volunteering as a timer at the Zionsville boys swimming sectional last month when she saw a familiar face.
It was the same face of the man who motivated her to become the best swimmer she could be 30 years earlier. The same guy with the calm demeanor who let her “find her own way” as she learned to love swimming, and not because someone was forcing her to.
There with a smile and a lifetime of memories was Richard Wachs, the retired West Lafayette High School swimming coach.
On March 23, the National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association will present Wachs with the 2013 Collegiate-Interscholastic Swimming Trophy in Indianapolis at its annual banquet.
“He really worked hard to make sure everybody improved, that everybody had an opportunity to improve and each person got some of his undivided attention,” said Kitchel, who went on to become an All-American at Purdue.
“I don’t think I appreciated it at the time, but now you see so many coaches who aren’t like that, that tend to just look at their star players or star competitors.”
Those values are among many reasons Wachs was selected by his peers as having made the most significant contributions to aquatic sports at the interscholastic level, the criteria for the Collegiate-Interscholastic Swimming Trophy.
Kitchel (née Hensler), a 1986 WL graduate, is one name on a long list who shares similar sentiments towards Wachs.
“He knew we were going to go to college and be off on our own,” said Raymond Mahon, who as a WL senior in 2009 finished runner-up at the IHSAA state finals in the 500-yard freestyle. “He let us make our own decisions and live with those consequences knowing we’d come to the realization of a boundary of what is right and what is wrong.”
Wachs spent 40 years as the Red Devils boys swimming coach and led the girls program for 30 years, putting together an unmatched resumé .
Twenty-eight times he was the Hoosier Conference boys coach of the year and earned an additional 17 honors on the girls side. Between girls’ and boys’ dual meets, he accumulated 808 victories against 285 defeats. There are the 28 combined sectional championships, the three individual state champions and two IHSAA mental attitude award winners.
Yet Wachs is remembered by those who have been around him for reasons that have nothing to do with results.
“Dick is just a hell of a guy,” said Lafayette Jeff coach Jim Sharp, whose friendship with Wachs began in the 1970s. “He is worth his weight in gold.
‘He has done so much. His strength today in staying involved is he’s such a historian. I don’t know anybody who does a better job at maintaining a website for a school that also carries over to all of Indiana.”
Mahon says his former high school coach was never about accolades and honors.
Wachs, who was a member of two state championship 200-yard freestyle relay teams at South Bend Adams, could cite memories so long it’d take another 40 years.
There’s the state champions he coached and the swimmers who weren’t as athletically prepared for the rigors of the sport, but stuck with it to see tremendous drops in their times.
Asked to choose one moment that he’ll never forget, Wachs mentions a trip to Terre Haute as a volunteer coach for Camp SPARKS (Special Play And Recreations for Kids with Special needs) for a state meet in line with the special Olympics.
“A lot of the athletes didn’t really know what was going on, but they got medals and awards and they would wear them for weeks,” Wachs recalls. “That was the most amazing thing to me. It was like Christmas or their birthday.”